Aliens is my favorite Eighties blast-flick, even nudging out Predator. For whatever reason, this is the one that speaks to me.
What James Cameron got right was basically everything. It was massively influential in 1980s science fiction pop-culture. Aliens created an entire aesthetic template for the Space Marine that everyone who followed Cameron had to either consciously accept or reject. The Colonial Marines were up there with Starfleet. And Aliens setup a film that would hold the title of “most disappointing sequel of all time” for the next 25 years.
Also, there is no way that this film could be made today.
That tells you right there it’s quality.
The funny thing about Aliens is that it does work as a sequel. It feels like it’s the next part of a story that is being told. Which is odd because the first movie has almost no resemblance to the second.
Ridley Scott’s 1979 feature, Alien, was a horror movie. It was a haunted house story that hit all of that genre’s tropes, but it was set in space, so you couldn’t jump out of a window and run off into the night. The crew was stuck in thier frieghter with IT. The thing that made Alien work is that it looked like an American blue-collar working factory. Before Star Wars, the future was always bright, clean, and very white like in 2001. Alien followed the grubby aesthetic which made it easier for the audience to identify with the crew once the horror started.
And it was true horror. There was a massive power imbalance between the Xenomorph and the doomed crew of the Nostromo. They were utterly helpless and the Thing in the Dark was going to get them no matter what they did. The only question was how soon would it do it? That is the essence of straight horror.
Aliens is the much trickier military-horror. First of all, the troops have to smell right. The Marines have to feel like they are the products of military culture. That is usually the biggest stumbling block for any filmmaker with no experience in the military.
The basic problem is that they wrap up a few tropes and clichés from other war movies without any of the driving passion of personal experience that would give their characters a bit of depth. The end result is something that feels a lot more like a biker gang than a military organization. When these moives do fail, nine times out of ten you will detect a Gamma resentment of burly, masculine men shining through the filmmaker’s work.
And I admit there was plenty Cameron got wrong about military culture. Particularly the “make your own uniforms” thing. Truth be said, there is some precedent for that in Vietnam and the Pacific Theater in WWII. Although, that is a situation where you are talking about long term combat and your issued uniform is pretty much shredded up rags anyway. These guys were fresh out of garrison and they looked like ass. However, Cameron’s strength has always been in visual representations to tell stories and with as much economy as possible. To do that he has to work with visual tropes and stereotypes that the audience is already familiar with and in 1986 Vietnam was still a pretty fresh memory.
Regardless, when all is said and done, the Colonial Marines felt like a line unit to me. I was a career Marine and to me they had the correct smell.
So, Cameron got the first part of military horror right which is the military. The other element of military horror is that you can’t turn your troops into the Kids from Crystal Lake or to be more exact, make them another Crew of the Nostromo. That kind of power imbalance won’t work in military-horror. A military organization is going to have discipline, training, teamwork, and resources. The first time the Thing in the Dark, comes out of the dark, it gets its teeth kicked in.
For military-horror to work you have to finesse your doomed troops’ situation. More on that in a moment.
Aliens had a pretty good start. The escape capsule containing the sole survivor of the Nostromo is found decades after the ship’s destruction. Ripley gets blamed by the company and during her vilification session she is informed that there is now a colony on the planet where she found Egg of Evil.
Then the colony goes radio silent.
A 1980s mergers and acquisitions executive shows-up at Ripley’s apartment to talk her into going on an expedition to look in on the colony.
I admit this part is a little inconsistent. Either Weyland-Yutani knew what was going on at the colony or they didn’t. What was going on at the colony clearly rated a full-size Marine Expeditionary Unit instead of one understrength platoon (honestly this was rifle squad, not a platoon) with a butter-bars Second Lieutenant commanding. However, a full-strength MEU could have handled the problem, which would have made for a dull story.
The Sulaco arrives and they take a quick look around the colony. Nobody home and there have clearly been signs of a struggle. When they look over the med facility they find a “face-hugger,” under glass. The Marines discover that all of the Colonists’ personal transponders are transmitting from inside the powerplant, so they go have a look. Then the aliens ambush them.
In military-horror, one of the ways that you finesse troops’ situation into a doomed one is to limit their resources. Which Cameron did effectively, by destroying most of their supplies as well as their way to signal the Sulaco that they were in trouble. They could hold their own so long as they had ammo but they didn’t have enough of that to survive. He was also clever about creating a leadership vacuum.
A working relationship between a newly minted officer and a career platoon sergeant is one that happens in the real world. Ideally, the platoon will have a parental model, the new officer being a young, flustered but well-meaning Dad. The Sergeant being the Mom who insists that the Dad is the master of the house and that his very word is law, but the kids all know who really wears the pants in the family. Now consider that dynamic if Mom is eaten by a Grue.
Then the 2nd Lt. is injured and now there is a leadership vacuum that Ripley will have to step into. This is supposed to be Corporal Hicks but American military tradition is to submit to civilian authority, so when Ripley starts leading, it works.
When I said this film couldn’t be made today, I meant it. Third-wave feminism could not tolerate the character of Ellen Ripley. In a modern iteration she would be the one in charge from the start constantly getting in everyone’s face and being right all the time. And of course, everyone who she met would love her for it because she’s so beautiful and fierce all the time. In fact the image of Ripley has been changed by the perception of her character in this film. The pop-culture view of the character is that she is an action hero born to kick Xeno-ass.
But Ripley was scared to death when she agreed to come on the mission. She had never wanted to leave Earth again, she only did so get her license back. She was entirely reactive until the ambush. What made her character work was her relationship with Newt. A maternal relationship as a driving force is nothing short of horror to modern feminists. Yet, when Newt was captured, Ripley’s reaction was believable, she went full mama bear and she was getting her cub back or she’d die trying and she didn’t care if the world burned so long her little girl was in danger.
The juxtaposed standoff between human mother and alien mother was a perfect climax to the film.
When the movie was over, we all wanted more. Be careful what you wish for. Alien 3 undid the entire ending of Aliens during the opening credits. I have never hated a movie more until I saw The Last Jedi.
Aliens was a film that should have started a franchise but the elements that made its fans want more were completely missed by any of the films that followed it. It remains a one-off.
At least in the movies. It has lived on in numerous books, comics and video games.
However, I can’t say that it’s future is bright.
Aliens is now the property of Disney Entertainment.
End of Part I
Okay, I’m done here.